Overstressed Wine Industry Can't Believe Their Eyes.
by Aymeric de Clouet
Originally written in French
Last year, I was approached by a Singaporean wine merchant desperate to know about a bottle of Romanée-Conti 1929 that he considered fake, because its label was printed with pixels which didn’t exist at that time.
I asked them to bring the bottle back to France for me to examine. The pictures on my computer definitely showing pixels, which is fairly natural, on a screen. We then examined it together, and the whole bottle seemed to me to conform perfectly to what it was supposed to be. Old used foil, old glass, old label.
It was apparently not enough for my client, who kept insisting on the pixel-like printing. “Can’t you see, can’t you see, it’s obvious, it’s pixels”. I did not see, the whole label seemed fairly typical of the time period. So we asked for the assistance of a judicial expert in old paper since all other elements were now cleared. She confirmed that the quality of paper, the printing technique and all details were at least 70-80 years old. At the end of the day, not a single element of the bottle had given any reason for suspecting fraud, but a lot of fuss had been made.
It reminds me of a story told to me at one of the greatest estates in Bordeaux about a self- appointed wine expert who likes to have fake bottles destroyed, which would be ok if not for the fact that she does make people destroy perfectly good bottles, simply because she does not know what older bottles look like. In the post-war France, not all bottles looked alike, even within the same estate, and even in the same case of wine. At that time, nobody envisaged that someday wines would make such high prices, and that a single bottle could be worth a month’s salary or more. Châteaux did not pay the attention to detail that they do today. And let us not speak about Burgundy. They started to print corks in the 90’s!
The current wave of newspaper articles and TV reports, plus on-line articles does raise the level of fear regarding counterfeiting. Rightly so: after Kurniawan’s scandal, and some others that are not to be discussed (I am sworn to secrecy on the cases where I was consulted as an expert), it is true that the level of fake bottles has risen. It is only natural, since the value of wine has never been so high, as well as the ignorance of buyers, who collect wines as a sign of status.
Most fakes remain easy enough to spot. Others need a bit of knowledge. The infamous Kurniawan could sell Romanée-Conti 1945 jeroboams without raising an eyebrow in the US, while everyone knows that only 600 bottles (75 cl) were produced. Some years ago, a big international auction house listed a 1947 from the same estate - which was never produced. Recently, another auction house in the UK listed cognacs from different years and various producers, all with the same cork and foil; another listed magnums of Cheval-Blanc ’53, with neutral foil, never used there.
As so-called specialists let many fakes through, one still needs to be careful. But this is not a good reason enough to believe that there are no real treasures still to be had, provided they are bought from reliable sources and appropriately vetted.